MIKE AT THE MOVIES: The Tragedy of Macbeth

Lean, Mean and Totally Engrossing


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The Coen brothers, Minnesota boys Joel and Ethan, are responsible for some of the most original movies of the past quarter century. 

Since their debut in 1984 with Blood Simple – a twisty Texas noir about murder, infidelity and sleazy private eyes – they have collaborated on 19 features, including the classics Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and No Country for Old Men (2007). That last title was an adaptation of a novel by Cormac McCarthy and a bit of an aberration because the brothers usually write and direct their own material. 

Together, they’ve been nominated for 13 Academy Awards and won four, for their original screenplay of Fargo (which inspired a hit TV series on FX) and for writing, directing and producing No Country for Old Men. Their signature style through much of their work is quirky Americana served with a side of mordant humor.

So it was a bit of a shock when Joel Coen announced in 2020 that he was going solo on a new film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which would star his wife – three time Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand – opposite two-time winner Denzel Washington as the Bard’s most infamous murderous couple. Who knew what to expect?

The resulting production, The Tragedy of Macbeth (R), currently in select theaters and streaming on Apple TV, is, at 105 minutes, a lean, mean, totally engrossing work that pares Shakespeare’s darkest drama to the bones. Shot in evocative black and white by Bruno Delbonnel on austere sets designed by Stefan Dechant (I expect you’ll be hearing both of those names once Oscar nominations are announced), the film might remind serious cinephiles of 1960s-era Ingmar Bergman in its brooding pacing and turbulent turns.

This is the best Shakespeare I’ve seen in years.”

If you weren’t sleeping through your high school English classes, you might recall that Macbeth was Shakespeare’s “Scottish play,” about an outwardly noble man cajoled by his ambitious wife to murder the king and seize the crown for himself. It was Game of Thrones in iambic pentameter, with just as much back-stabbing, betrayal and black magic going on four centuries before HBO.

Coen, who adapted the play, strips things to the essentials. This is very much a story about one couple out to grab political power for themselves, regardless of the cost, and driven mad once they get a taste of it. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether Coen is intentionally drawing parallels to our current political climate, where “fair is foul, and foul is fair” and our leaders “hover through the fog and filthy air.”

Washington, no surprise, makes a meal of Macbeth, teasing every nuance in Shakespeare’s storied monologues to give us a sense of his developing paranoia and slide into madness. McDormand, who wouldn’t have been my first choice to play Lady Macbeth, is equally fine, using her trademark Midwestern unflappability to craft a woman who knows how to get what she wants – and how to weasel out of responsibility once she gets it.

But for my money, the revelation of this production is the diminutive Kathryn Hunter, the English actress and contortionist, who plays all three of Shakespeare’s iconic witches. Using her body in ways that defy explanation, she gives this production of Macbeth its black, beating heart and dark poetry.

This is the best Shakespeare I’ve seen in years. 

In another lifetime, Mike Orlock wrote film reviews for the Reporter/Progress newspapers in the western suburbs of Chicago. He has also taught high school English, coached basketball and authored three books of poetry. He currently serves as Door County’s poet laureate.